In Cartagena, the players take the roles of 17th-century
pirates escaping from a Spanish prison at Cartagena on the Spanish
Main (modern Colombia). The cards in the game show various objects
vaguely associated with pirates: daggers, old-style hats, pistols,
bottles (presumably of rum), skulls and skeleton keys. There is
a sloop waiting to carry the escaping pirates to freedom. At that
point, any relationship to the theme ends and it becomes an abstract
But it's good light abstract game that plays tolerably well at all
levels from 2 to 5 players. It's fairly short, extremely easy to
learn and play, and we pull it out as a light filler fairly often
- often enough to warrant a review.
You get 102 colorful cards showing the objects mentioned above plus
an arrow card we never use (somewhat cutesy art, but tolerable),
six board segments which are double-sided and can be joined together
to create the full board in thousands of ways, a cute little
cardboard sloop, 30 wooden pawns in five colors, and rules and
example sheet in both German and English.
The board segments show an underground tunnel - your escape rout
from prison. Laying all the segments together creates a long,
winding tunnel leading to the sloop. Each board segment has the
6 symbols shown on the cards, each with a different pattern from
the others. The boards have four 90-degree bends in them so you
don't have line them up straight across a table. Once you set the
boards up randomly, they might show a bottle, then a key, then a
hat, etc., all the way from the dungeon where the pirate pawns
start to the sloop representing escape to Tortuga in the Caribbean.
Set the boards up, put all the pawns in the game off the starting
space (one set of 6 pawns for each player), deal 6 cards to each
player, pick a start player and you're ready to begin. Oops -
almost: you have to decide whether you're playing the Tortuga
version or the Jamaica version of the rules. Unless you're
a masochist, I highly recommend you play the Jamaica version.
Trust me on this.
Basic Course of Play
On your turn you take up to three actions. There are only two
types of actions, so it's a very simple game:
That's it. You can repeat an action up to three times in your
turn: play three cards, for example, or have three pirates move
backwards (or the same pirate move backwards three times). Or some
combination, in any order you want. And order makes a big difference
in this game! Occasionally you'll even pass your third action, as
doing anything would help the player after you more than it does
- play a card and advance a pirate,
- move a pirate backward and draw one or two cards.
When you play a card, select one of your pirates and move
him to the next unoccupied symbol on the board that matches
the symbol on the card you just played. For example, if you play
a Hat card, you look for the next open Hat space. If the Hat space
on the first board is occupied, skip it. If the Hat spaces on the
boards two through four are also occupied, skip all those. Move
directly to the Hat on the fifth board in this case - very fast
movement, indeed! Remember that each board has one each of the
six symbols, so there are only six Hats on the whole board. If
all the Hats ahead of you are occupied, playing a Hat allows you
to move directly to the sloop.
When one player gets all six pirates on the sloop, they win the
Moving backward allows you to draw cards. Since you only
have six cards and you have six pirates to move all the way to the
sloop, you're going to have to pick up cards to move them very far.
There can be no more than three pirates on a single space, and the
only way there can be more than one is by moving backwards - moving
forward you always skip over occupied spaces.
When you fall back, you stop at the nearest space behind you that
has one or two pirates, regardless of symbol. If there was one
pirate there when you started to move backwards, draw one card.
If there were two pirates there when you started to move backwards,
draw two cards. Falling back counts as one of your three actions
- you could now use those cards drawn as further actions in the
That's the game: take three actions, playing and drawing cards as
required, and try to be the first to get your six pirates onto the
There are some interesting strategies possible in the game, simple
as it is. One is what we call Roads and another we call
Looting. (These are our terms, not official terms.)
You create a Road by playing lots of the same card. If you
play three Daggers, for example, we say you're using the Dagger
Road. The first card moves the first pawn one board, the next card
moves a second pawn to the second board, and the third card moves
a third pawn to the third board. This would be fine if you were
playing solitaire, but you're not. So you can't really simply do
that: you'd actually be creating a Road for your opponents to take
advantage of! If the next player has three Daggers, he suddenly has
pawns on the fourth, fifth and sixth boards, for example, compared
to your first, second and third.
So the trick is to use Roads, but not leave them for others. The
ideal way to break a Road is with a two-card Loot.
Looting is maximizing your card drawing, and trying to
minimize it for your opponents. It works best in combination with
Roads, but should be taken advantage of when the occasion arises,
Road or no Road. If you're contributing to a Road - say you've
got one pawn on the third Hat when five Hats are occupied - it
would be smart to break that Road. Use that pawn to fall back and
Loot. But if you fall back to a single pawn, you're only getting
one card, and setting it up for your opponent to fall back to that
space and draw two cards. So try to fall back to two pawns as
often as possible - or have two different pawns fall back to the
same space, building a three-pawn space that can't be Looted,
drawing three cards while you're at it. (One for the first pawn
falling back to one pawn, and two for the next pawn falling back
to the same space.)
You can't always optimize your turn, but with good thought and an
occasional lucky guess as to what cards your opponents are holding,
you can do pretty well. It's strategy, but it's fairly light
strategy, appropriate for a family filler game.
Make mine Jamaica!
So far I've only talked about the Jamaica version. What's the
Tortuga version I urged you to avoid? Simple: in the Jamaica
version I prefer, all players' hands are secret and the draw pile
is facedown. In the Tortuga version, all cards are face up,
including the first 12 draw cards. (Use the arrow card to show
which end you draw from.) This turns a light, fast-paced game into
a brutal analysis paralysis. "Let's see, he's got a Pistol, so
if I build a Pistol Road, he can use it. But she's got three Hats,
so I can't leave my piece on that Hat. And if I fall back and draw
I'll only get a Key, leaving her to get two more Hats - no, that's
deadly, I can't do that ..." And so on. Each turn takes a
long time, and the game crawls. If this sounds like fun to you,
go for it. Just please don't ask me to play with you!
Why Wouldn't You Like This Game?
The Jamaica version may be too light and luck-bound for some people,
while the Tortuga version may be too slow.
Some people call the game Hare & Tortoise Light,
and would rather just play that game. This isn't quite fair -
while there are some resemblances to Hare &
Tortoise (an excellent game!), there are significant
differences. It is shorter and simpler, no doubt of that,
but that can be a good thing in certain moods and time available
A fine, fun filler game. Easy to play in half an hour (a little
longer with four or five players), it works well from two to five
players. It's inexpensive, reasonably attractive, and doesn't take
up much shelf space. I like it.
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